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A weekend with a horse, of course!
Feed that childhood love of horses no matter how old you are by going to a weekend horse show
While most horses in competition wear horse shoes, some backyard horses can go barefoot. Grace uses shoes, which help her grip the ground before she takes off over a jump. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

For some little girls, it's a dream come true.

Imagine hundreds of horses, prancing to choreographed steps or jumping 3-foot-tall fences, all in the middle of Hall County and all open to the public.

At least, that's the scene nearly every weekend at the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center, where horse shows feature jumping, dressage, Western riding and even target competition on horseback. Most horse shows don't have an entry fee, said Terry Dwyre, secretary at Chicopee Woods.

"It depends on the show, what they do. There are different varieties of the horse shows," she said. "Some are hunter/jumper, some are dressage. We have mounted shooters who shoot a single-action revolver. It has a special bullet in it and they dress in 1800s western wear - they go for time, through a maze and shoot a target."

The facility is also home to llama shows and dog agility competitions. But as far as the horses go, local riding instructor Dana Ferguson said if you can imagine a use for a horse, that use probably translates into a sport that is on display at some point.

"At Chicopee there's a little bit of everything going on there. You have the breed sports, you have the English riding disciplines, the Western riding disciplines, you have mounted shooting, which is a whole other avenue they do down there, too," said Ferguson, who is also treasurer of the Lanier Equestrian Association. "There's just a lot of stuff you can do on a horse."

English riding includes dressage, where horse and rider move in unison to a set pattern, and jumping. Western riding can involve contests also seen at a rodeo, such as barrel racing, but can also include competitions where the horses and riders are judged simply on their performance. At a breed horse show, horses of one particular breed are shown.

Generally, Ferguson said, horse lovers who are attracted to a specific discipline tend to stay within that discipline. And at horse shows, often the entire day is dedicated to showing that particular type of discipline.

This can be a little frustrating for some who are interested in horses and aren't sure what they'll find at a horse show, said Judy Tilford, 4-H county extension agent. She said anyone interested in going to a horse show should keep in mind that there is down time - it's not constant action - and they can use that time to visit the barn areas or watch the horses warm up for the next class, or specific competition within the horse show.

"The misconception is it's going to be an ongoing event," she said. "But because there are different classes, there will be a lull between classes. They're kind of on a slower pace. You can expect

some time between classes, which is an excellent time to go out to the stable area and see some of the riders getting ready for the show, or riders coming back from a class."

Local rider Ansley Hayes, 18, a recent Johnson High graduate and past president of the Hall County 4-H Horse Club, said often, because so many people in the local horse community know each other, they're usually interested to talk to newcomers.

Hayes is also involved in the Lanier Equestrian Association, and said she even got her start in the group by volunteering at horse shows.

"You can just go to a show and people will talk to you," she said. "The cool thing about the North Georgia horse community, and Hall County, is there's really good ways to grow up in it. You can just show up at a horse show, meet people and get a phone number if you want to take a lesson."

Kids who want to get involved in 4-H do need to have access to a horse, Hayes said. It used to be the club didn't have that requirement, but it was difficult scheduling activities for both riders and nonriders.

But many Hall County kids find out about 4-H simply by taking lessons at a local barn. Usually, Hayes said, kids who are taking lessons at a barn meet others in the group, and then more join.

"There are barns who cater to students without horses," she said. "A lot of kids will come to 4-H and get connected with a trainer, and a lot of kids will go to a barn and see other kids who are riding and in 4-H, and get connected that way."

Compared to Metro Atlanta horse clubs and show circuits - where money and expensive horses can set the tone for the day - riders in Hall County are decidedly more laid back. Ferguson said the Lanier Equestrian Association makes a point to not require formal riding attire for kids starting out, which makes competitive horseback riding an easier financial pill for parents to swallow.

"Most of the kids in our group are just normal everyday kids whose parents are lucky enough to have a couple hundred dollars a month to put towards boarding or lessons," she said.

"You find a lot of communities that have small farms and a lot of people who bought up 10 acres or 6 acres."

Hayes agreed that the horse community is very approachable.

"We're all, for what it is, especially compared to other show circuits, we're more of kind of a grass roots, let's all hang out (group)," Hayes said. "If a kid showed up at a horse show, somebody will talk to you. We're not going to just ignore you. If we see someone we don't know, we're like, ‘Hey, who are you? Let's fight over the new person.'"